Just days before U.S.-Taliban talks were put on freeze earlier in September, I was in Istanbul for a negotiations workshop with 25 Afghan women leaders. These women were expected to play an integral role in intra-Afghan talks that would follow a U.S.-Taliban deal. Even though a deal seemed imminent that week, the Taliban intensified their attacks on Afghan civilians and security forces. Meanwhile, these women were hard at work strategizing for peace. But they, and other Afghans I spoke with in a subsequent trip to Kabul, revealed deep trepidation over what a U.S.-Taliban deal would mean for them, their hard-won rights, and the impact a begrudging peace could have on Afghan society.

The opening session of the loya jirga, a yearly tribal assembly where some 30 percent of participants are now women, in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 29, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
The opening session of the loya jirga, a yearly tribal assembly where some 30 percent of participants are now women, in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 29, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Istanbul: Working for Peace as War Rages on at Home

The U.S. Institute of Peace organized the workshop in Istanbul, which and brought together experts from the U.S., Colombia, and the Philippines to share lessons learned and best practices from other peace processes. The Afghan women came from diverse backgrounds, representing 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Despite differences in age, education and vocation, they were united in their desire to work for peace and shared a common vision for their country and concern for their family’s futures. Amid this empowering workshop, the peace process was on the forefront of their minds—because the reality of war kept it there.

On the second day of the workshop, one participant quietly told me that an explosion was reported near her home in Kabul and she needed to make some calls. Within minutes, everyone’s phones were beeping, receiving updates from friends and colleagues. During a tea break, one of them came to me and said, “Thank God the explosion was far from my son’s school. This is our life. I am physically here [in Istanbul] but my mind is at home.”

Afghan women expressed their concern with the lack of women and minorities and the lack of transparency in the peace process so far. They were worried that their rights would be compromised to appease the Taliban. “Most Afghans feel that the current approach to peace will not bring an end to violence, it is an exit strategy by the U.S.,” said Najiba Ayoubi, an advocate for victims of war. “We [Afghans] must own the process. At the end of the day we have to live with the consequences.”

Kabul: Fears of a Return to Taliban Rule

Following the workshop, I traveled to Kabul with these women. Over the course of two weeks there, I witnessed Afghans experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. Many told me that they felt the U.S. and its international allies were “conceding to the Taliban” and were anxious about the contours of the potential deal.

For many Afghans who lived under Taliban rule, rumors of a reference to the group as the “Islamic Emirate” in the draft deal were hard to swallow. When the Taliban regime ruled the country under that moniker, they imposed a harsh, narrow interpretation of Islamic law, controlling every aspect of Afghans’ lives. The country was governed by an unelected group of so-called religious scholars who chose the “amir” that served as head of state.

They told me that if a deal that used the term “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” was signed, it would represent a victory for the Taliban and al-Qaida and its affiliates. The Taliban have used that term since being overthrown to reinforce their claim that they are the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Up until September 2, it was all conjecture whether “Emirate” would be in the deal. But then, in an interview with Tolo News, Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said it was used in the draft agreement. (U.S. officials have given conflicting accounts on the use of the term in draft deal.) The concept of an emirate directly contradicts the democratic values that the U.S., its allies, and Afghans have sacrificed so much for. Many Afghans I spoke with could not come to grips with how the U.S. could refer to the Taliban in this way.

With all the violence and conflict Afghans have experienced over the last four decades, some assume they would accept any peace deal. But, that’s simply not the case. One female journalist in Kabul told me, “I should be happy that this war could end soon if the U.S. and Taliban deal is signed, but on contrary, I feel angry and betrayed … The U.S. is going to hand over the government to the Taliban. I don’t even want to imagine what could happen to my daughters.” A father of five teenage boys and girls said, “I am willing to sell everything in my possession to get my family out before the Taliban return.”

The day after President Trump announced he was canceling the talks, the mood in Kabul was different—Afghans were relieved. “I was so sad yesterday it felt as if I was going to have a stroke. I couldn’t sleep, I got up and started praying, I cried and I prayed to Allah to show me some light. My prayers were answered, this morning I woke up to the news of the suspension of deal between U.S. and Taliban,” said the female journalist in Kabul.

What do Afghans Really Want?

Since my return to Washington, I often find myself in conversations with non-Afghan friends who ask: What do Afghans want? When will they get their acts together? Why can’t Afghans understand that the U.S. will eventually have to withdraw?

The short answer is that Afghans overwhelmingly want peace. It’s hard to find an Afghan family that has not lost someone during the war. For many outside Afghanistan, the latest report on Taliban attacks and Afghan casualties just adds to the sad statistics of the war. But, for Afghans, every attack means much more, from the physical violence to the emotional trauma. So, Afghans, more than anyone, want peace—but they don’t want the rights they’ve won over the last 18 years to be a casualty of any agreement.

For their part, many Afghan women—in Istanbul and Kabul—told me that they are being pressured to reach a consensus on what rights they are willing to compromise in return for peace. But, for most Afghan women, there is no room for compromise. Rather, they want their fundamental rights protected. While they want to protect the current constitution, they also see room for improvement so that that they have equal rights in practice and so that the state fulfills its obligations to international conventions and treaties, like the U.N. charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Giving up their rights is not part of the equation; they want their rights expanded.

From the women I spoke with in Istanbul to the people I heard from in Kabul, I found that many Afghans agree about what the worst alternative to a negotiated agreement is: the continuation of violence. They want negotiations to resume as soon as possible, but they want to see a different approach, an approach that makes U.S. withdrawal contingent on a cease-fire to end the loss of lives and destruction of their country. Afghans want their government to be part of the negotiations. And they want the gains they’ve made in the last 18 years to be protected.

The views expressed in this article represent the author’s and not those of USIP. The names of those quoted in the article are withheld for security reasons.

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